Eyes in Bladerunner
By Thomas Karantinos
Bladerunner has an obsession with eyes. Eye symbolism in the film is rampant. This essay discusses the various aspects of eye symbolism in the film, based upon religious and developmental concepts.
Eyes and religion
One of the very first scenes of the film is used to indicate the relationship between the film and its main themes with religion and theosophy in general. We see an eye which reflects the flames coming out from the chimneys of the dark, industrialised city. Next we see the Tyrell building and then we see the eye again reflecting both the flames and the building which has a pyramid shape. This particular image forms a symbol which is known as the all-seeing eye.
The all-seeing eye is a freemasonic symbol. The eye represents the Great Architect of the Universe (which is the freemasonic concept of god) and derives from an Egyptian symbol called the eye of Horus which represent the eye of the Egyptian god Osiris. The pyramid indicates the relationship of freemasonry with the Egyptian mysteries (Pike, 1938).
There are also many other religious concepts found in the film. For example Roy puts a nail though Tyrell's palm and a pigeon flies away when Roy is dying (Saini, 1996). So why did Scott insist on giving the film religious ideas? It is possible that he wanted to reinforce his ideas about the relationship between man and god discussed below.
There is a possibility indeed that the eye we see at the start of the film to be Tyrell's eye. This way he is presented as the Great architect of the replicants. Another very interesting fact about this specific scene is that the eye appears to be damaged, full of spots and cataracts (McCoy, 1995). Even the reflections do not seem to occur normally. However, there is no indication throughout the film that the eyes of the replicants behave this way and/or that they are damaged. If we assume that the eye we see it is indeed Tyrell's eye, it might be damaged (non-normal) to show that he is not a 'real god' but an 'artificial god'.
Creator and created, father and son
There is a very strong parallel in the film: for the replicants Tyrell is presented as God in the same way we might picture and imagine god. For example the main demand of the replicants (that is more life) would be a reasonable demand for humans too. There are many points in the film that this parallel is shown and some of them are associated with eyes.
Firstly Tyrell is wearing noticeably sizable glasses. His glasses establish him successfully as a god-figure and moreover they give a feeling of protection (very thick lenses + big lenses = his eyes cannot be 'touched' easily). Throughout the film the glasses have a magnifying effect upon Tyrell's eyes which enchases more his role as the 'god' and father of the replicants (Saini, 1996).
Another very interesting point is the film is Roy's use of words when he thinks of his creator: “Not an easy man to see I guess”. The use of word see here is rather unusual; meet would make more sense. More importantly this quote has another meaning which is associated with the idea of man and god. Roy actually states here that is not easy to meet your maker (Saini, 1996). And to reinforce this concept even more Scot puts Roy to apologise to Tyrell for his actions in the same way that a man would confess to a priest (“I have done questionable things”).
Finally, the way in which the replicants learn the identity of their maker is through the man who created their eyes. Roy states: “If you could only see what I have seen with your eyes” establishing a kinship relationship with Chew and in extension Tyrell. Tyrell and Chew give the replicants vision, enabling them to form identity, adopt a perception and to form their own memories and visions (Gischler, 2002).
Eyes, perception and memory
It would be useful at this point to mention what eyes represent in our everyday lives. It has been said that eyes are the gateway to the soul. This idea is indeed accepted by the majority of people at least in developed countries. This is demonstrated by the use of words in some everyday phrases and sayings. For example a common phrase is “Look me at the eyes and tell me the truth”. Moreover, eyes are also linked with perception. We must bear in mind that most of the eye symbolism in Bladerunner is tightly linked with the above associations.
The most interesting and important use of eye symbolism in the film is that eyes are used to determine if a person is a replicant or not: replicant eyes and human eyes are different. Firstly, they do have a physical difference: replicants have slightly glowing eyes. This differentiation, however, is only visible to the audience, as the characters of the films do not seem to be able to distinguish between replicant and human eyes by vision (McCoy, 1995). More importantly, an eye is the means that enables differentiation using the Voight-Kampff machine. The VK test is described to be based upon empathetic responses that have an effect on the contraction of the iris. In simpler words it determines if the subject has feelings and that is measured by only looking at his/her eyes. This beautifully demonstrates that even Scott believes that eyes are the gateway to the soul.
There is another very interesting scene where eyes play an important role. It is the scene that Deckard says to Rachael that her memories are implanted. The concept of memory in the film is tightly linked with vision; recall Roy's quote “I have seen things you people wouldn't believe”. When Rachael is accused that her memories are fake she defends herself by saying that she remember seeing these things. Her words are significant because our character is structured mainly by memories, and memories in most cases include visual information. Our memories determine the way we see the world and largely determine the way we behave (Saini, 1996). In Rachael's case seeing is not believing. She has fake eyes, therefore fake memories and therefore fake (replicant) behaviour. The other replicants are aware of that fact and perhaps from insecurity they celebrate their own memories, hence, “I have seen things you people wouldn't believe”.
The fact that they do celebrate their own memories indicates that they may feel satisfied with their own eyes. The relationship between the replicants and artificial eyes is indeed very convoluted (more in the next section). Roy's memorable quote discussed above has childish elements. In a simpler language it could be translated as: my eyes (and therefore memories) are better than yours! Salim argues that in this specific scene Roy just accepts his artificiality but that is rather not the case because the element of dignity in this quote is quite profound (Salim, 2002).
As it was mentioned before the relationship between replicants and eyes is very difficult to characterize. However, some conclusions can be drawn safely. The replicants seem to toy with eyes in many scenes of the films, noticeably in Chew's lab and in Sebastian's apartment (McCoy, 1995). It seems that they have accepted the fact that their eyes are fake and that his leads to fake memory formation, so they do not “pay respect” to artificial eyes and toy with them. In other words, they seem to consider eyes as insignificant toys rather than highly sophisticated artificial organs. On the other hand when Roy says to Chew “If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes” he seems to have positive feelings about his eyes. A possible explanation for that is that when they actually toy with they eyes, the do not toy with just the organs but with what they think they represent. They may think that these eyes may be fake and their memories are as fake as well, but at the end of the story what they have seen with these eyes is real and it is a part (probably the only real part) of their experiences in life.
Real eyes on the other hand constitute a great source of attraction for replicants. The replicants seem to prefer to kill humans via the eye sockets by pushing out their eyes (McCoy, 1995). Why do they choose this strange type of killing? Their physical capabilities are far superior to humans and they could kill them in many ways. They might feel a type of envy when they gouge out the eyes of their enemies. Maybe they feel angry with their own eyes and want to destroy real eyes and real memories. Even more, they might want to bring the eyes in their possession because they might feel that this way they will feel more real.
Tyrell's death is indeed a remarkable scene. His huge glasses cannot protect him from death. His eyes are gouged out. The divine threshold is fallen apart. His is not a real god….He is artificial as well.
Eyes in the film constitute the means by which the audience comes in contact with the replicants. Most of their characteristics, actions and beliefs are associated with eyes. Eye symbolism is finally the means by which the parallel of Tyrell and human god is achieved.
Thomas Karantinos 2003
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Gischler, V. (2002) “Image Is Everything: Lacan's Mirror Stage and Blade Runner” http://scribble.com/uwi/br/br-lacan.html (site accessed on 11/02/2003)
McCoy, J (1995) “Eyes tell all” http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~syverson/309-fall95/classpage/bladerunner/mccoy/ (site accessed on 11/02/2003)
Pike, A (1938) “Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Freemasonry” Kessinger Publishing Company
Saini, T. (1996) “Eyes disbelieve” http://scribble.com/uwi/br/tinku/ (site accessed on 11/02/2003)
Salim, M.M. (2002) “Moral and Political Paradigms” http://www.majid-salim.co.uk/br/mapp.html (site accessed on 11/02/2003)